I remember the way my mother used to vigorously wash my hair over the sink in the kitchen until I squirmed – scrubbing away the badness! But for all the discomfort of it, I think of it now, just a week after her death, cherishing that moment of intimacy.
The poet Seamus Heaney, at his mother’s deathbed, savoured the memory of peeling spuds with her while all the others were away at Mass – her head bent towards his, their breaths mingling, ‘never closer the whole rest of our lives’.
The Gospels tell of similar intimate moments. In John’s Gospel, just days before his burial, Mary of Bethany tenderly anoints the feet of Jesus with costly ointment, wiping them with her hair until the house is filled with its sweet perfume. A similar moment is recounted by Saint Luke, when a so-called “sinful woman” provokes disdain by kissing the feet of Jesus, washing them with her tears and wiping them dry with her hair. On that occasion, Jesus rebukes his host, Simon the Pharisee, for complaining about the woman, pointing instead to her gratitude for God’s mercy and forgiveness – ‘You gave me no kiss of welcome, or water to wash my feet when I arrived; you did not pour oil on my head … I tell you her many sins have been forgiven – that’s why she has shown such great love’ (see Lk7:47).
This Holy Thursday afternoon we will recall the moving moment at the Last Supper when Jesus girded himself with a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet – another moment of intimacy, humble service and mercy. Jesus was setting an example: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet … what will mark you out as my followers is the love you have for one another (Jn13:14)”.
In a few moments we will have an opportunity to renew our commitment to priesthood. The saintly Cure of Ars once remarked that the priesthood is “the love of the heart of Jesus”. Likewise, Pope Francis identifies the love and mercy of Jesus as the pastoral “starting point” for priestly ministry: “the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence … (RS201428)”.
My brother priests I know how much you dedicate yourselves to walking with your people. In the daily struggles of family life, when God’s people worry and hurt, you are there with them, loving them, soothing them, offering the light of Christ to the moments of darkness and confusion in their lives.
At a personal level, in recent weeks my family and I have experienced first-hand the comforting pastoral presence and prayers of priests – especially during my mother’s final illness, and last week at her wake and funeral. Thank you. I know that your priestly ministry brings you face to face with many situations like this, and often with the terrible traumas that afflict life in the twenty-first century. You suffer with so many families at times of sudden loss. You are often among the first on the scene of car accidents or fires; you accompany grieving parishioners, sometimes in heart-breaking moments when children or young people have died tragically. In all these situations, with hands anointed by Chrism on the day of your ordination, you seek to bring the compassionate and healing touch of Christ, kneeling to lovingly pour out the balm of love, mercy and forgiveness just as Jesus did when he washed the feet of his disciples.
To minister like this is not easy; it can take its toll on any of us, for we too are human, often yearning ourselves for closeness, love, tenderness and friendship. Today I exhort you, my dear brothers to please take care of your own health and well-being. You have been generous in answering God’s call to serve, and in remaining committed to your priestly promises over many years. But there are times when we all need help, and priests are no exception.
Just as many of our people struggle in this fast-paced, relentless and demanding world, we too are fragile at times; the challenges that affect our people affect us too!
Some of our brother priests struggle with illness, loneliness, or the increased frailty of old age. Priests also can have their personal disappointments, can fail to cope with criticism or fear of the unknown.
In all these circumstances it is important, as Pope Francis says, not to be robbed of hope or the joy of the Gospel. Our formation encouraged us to develop and sustain an intimate friendship with Jesus through prayer, spiritual direction, regular Confession, recollection and retreats and to build a close fraternity with our brother priests.
It is easy, however, to drift away from the security of these supports, thinking that we can go it alone, like isolated ‘lone rangers’. Believe me, my brothers, we will fall; we are only human. We are just as susceptible, as the people we serve, to the cycle of dependency and addiction that lurks beneath the seductive allure of alcohol, drugs, social media and the internet, all of which can promise false and fleeting pleasure, shallow superficial intimacy, while carrying a deadly sting in the tail.
We must not think we have always to be in control, always to be ‘the fixers’, the ones with all the answers, forgetting that we too are human; we have our own sinfulness, vulnerabilities and needs. It is not a sign of weakness as a priest to admit that you sometimes fail, or need help and accompaniment. Sometimes it is our feet that need to be washed, our heads that yearn for anointing, our troubles that crave the soothing balm of understanding.
Do not be like Simon Peter at the Last Supper when Jesus approached him with the basin and towel, crying out – never Lord, you will never wash my feet!
My brothers, look for help when you need it. Be open to receiving help from a friend, a counsellor or mentor, a therapist or sponsor, especially when you find yourself drifting from the warmth of Christ’s loving embrace towards the cruel clutches of the Evil One.
Surround yourselves with good and trusted friends and family. Feel the warmth and supportive closeness of your faithful people, who gather with you for Eucharist, praying at every Mass for you and your ministry. Accept their care and welcome their gratitude and appreciation for your ministry among them.
It is important sometimes to admit that, like everyone else, we priests are as much in need of hope and the joy of Christ’s love as those to whom we have the privilege to minister. That is why at this Chrism Mass I thank God for our faithful people, friends, family and brother priests – like those present with us in the Cathedral today – who “wash our feet” (so to speak), who offer us consolation, loving support and understanding, who stand by us in trials, stay close to us in adversity, and sustain our vocations by their solidarity and forgiveness.
Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you …What will mark you out as my disciples is the love you have for one another”. Amen.